A South African Epiphany: Simon Shares a Rite of Passage

Like most 20-year olds, I went to college massively interested in what I'd chosen to study, only for time and space to intervene, the distractions of new friends, relationships and interests making me question my allegiance to a degree in Ecology and Biogeography.

Which isn't to say I didn't throw myself into the course: studying the behaviour of hygienic bees and radio-collaring foxes to mention but a small part of my involvement fascinated me for a time, but little be known to me, there was something bigger, scarier, much more like the captivating documentaries shown on Sunday evenings coming along; this was the real deal. In my second year of university, to collect data for my dissertation, I visited Mankwe Wildlife Reserve, in South Africa's North West Province, near Pilansberg National Park.

I won't bore you with the nuts and bolts of the dissertation, which had an unfeasibly long title, but basically I was studying the efficacy of different surveying methods used to measure the populations of large carnivores in Southern Africa. It is typically difficult to measure the populations for a number of reasons: carnivores occur at low densities, are mainly nocturnal, species are cryptic and have complex social behaviour: those that are predominantly solitary may be found in groups and vice versa as part of circannual cycles, as well as each group varying dramatically in size.

As well as being the perfect place to collect data for my dissertation, my stay at Mankwe was an absolute eye opener. I ran into a rhinoceros electric fence. I woke up with spitting cobra curled up under my bed. I spent 48 hours (with some breaks) in a hide, rain beating down on the roof for the most part, lightening striking all around. Blown away by the reserve's determination to conduct research and educate the world about the need to conserve all creatures, 'great and small' and reconcile humans with wildlife, I appreciated what it means to dedicate your life to a cause. It was an amazing experience.

I can't promise I returned a mature adult, but I know now that as an experience it explains why I'm here today, writing this, working for something I truly believe in. Certainly, whenever I feel myself wondering about such things, my mind returns to Mankwe. It's an inspiration, in every respect.

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